Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

Hawthorne's "Waking Reality"

Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

Hawthorne's "Waking Reality"

Article excerpt

"The Wives of the Dead" first appeared in the Token for 1832, alongside "My Kinsman, Major Molineaux," "Roger Malvin's Burial," and "The Gentle Boy." The tale remained an orphan for some twenty years -- until the appearance of The Snow-Image, the last of Hawthorne's four collections -- and even now stands in the shadow of those early companions.(1) An intricate knitting of interior and exterior worlds, of sleeping and waking realities, "The Wives of the Dead" nonetheless merits closer attention. Condensed, suggestive, and poetic, this brief but perplexing resurrection tale shows Hawthorne's prose at a peak of concentration.

The story concerns a difficult night passed by two widows, sisters-in-law who may or may not dream the nighttime arrival of tidings, to the effect that each sister's husband, recently reported dead, is in fact alive. The husbands -- brothers, hence the legal relation of the two women, a relation spelled out in legal language when Hawthorne describes their living arrangements -- are the unnamed dead of the title. The wives -- "recent brides" still "young and comely" -- are Mary and Margaret (61). Their names are appropriate, for Mary's husband was lost at sea (mare), while Margaret's, a landsman laboring on the frontier (marge), was killed "by the chances of Canadian warfare" (61). We're informed early on that the sisters have "joined their hearts" for consolation, yet the story proper, the heart of the story (beginning at the "verge of evening"), gives the sisters over to our separate consideration, proposing for each a joy that asserts the possibility of a difference, a verging of fate that threatens their union (61). In two dreamily described episodes, first one, and then the other, is awakened from sleep or from disturbed contemplation by a knocking, in each case signifying the unexpected arrival of a messenger. Each in turn then goes, without waking the other, to a window overlooking the street, to be apprised that her husband is in fact alive.

Despite the symmetry of these occasions, the episodes unfold in distinctly different terms, and though each widow receives the same news, revealingly different responses are recorded. Mary, partly awake when her messenger arrives, is slow to answer the summons, and though afterward a flood of conviction swells "into her heart, in strength enough to overwhelm," her initial response is "a doubt of waking reality" (66). Margaret, by contrast, is feverish but conscious. She hears the knock and receives the visitor in a state of fretful apprehension; she screams at the messenger, and then, upon receiving the news that her husband is alive, feels a flash of joy. Soon after, however, "a thought of pain" breaks in on her, that Mary's husband is still dead (64). She feels, writes Hawthorne, "as if her own better fortune, had rendered her involuntarily unfaithful" (64). This guilt, Margaret's feeling of unfaithfulness, pierces the story's dreamy surface, allowing a revelation of hidden desires -- perhaps even a revelation of adultery.

Our understanding of what transpires in this tale of broken sleep depends ultimately upon our interpretation of the final lines, the most inexplicable in all of Hawthorne's work, a body of writing well noted for its purposeful ambiguity.(2) The ending is startling, not simply for suggesting that one or another messenger has been dreamt, but because the very distinction between dream and reality is now befuddled. So all of a piece is the tale's dreamy quality, that having entertained a doubt as to one moment's facticity, the reader loses faith in the facticity of the whole. Indeed, if the narrator doesn't tell, how know the border between the sisters' waking and sleeping lives? How know if the sisters cross that border once, or repeatedly?(3) This much is clear: repeating, with certain significant differences, a sequence of steps and thoughts that each sister undertakes on her own, the narrative draws to a close by bringing the sisters face to face, a strange encounter whose precise meaning remains hauntingly in doubt. …

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